Oppressive or permissive?

Dream of unity faces huge gap of perception

Jul 20, 2015 by

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Is this how the dream of a big-tent church dies? We hope not. But it seemed to some that Mennonite Church USA’s vision of unity in diversity went on life support at the Kansas City convention.

The church is now “officially stuck,” as one delegate said in an interview with MWR. A middle-way compromise that tried to satisfy everyone may have pleased too few.

For some progressives, the forbearance resolution — the most tolerant statement on same-sex relationships ever adopted by MC USA — wasn’t enough. The most vocal advocates of gay and lesbian inclusion seemed not to acknowledge the progress it represents and the freedom it allows.

For some conservatives, the Membership Guidelines resolution — reaffirming the traditional stance on marriage and saying those whose actions vary from it must be called to account — wasn’t enough. They seemed to take little satisfaction from this declaration, nor put much faith in the mandate for greater accountability.

In the middle were those who made unity their top priority and voted for both resolutions. They did this even though it is virtually impossible to enthusiastically support two such divergent documents. Their desire to be bridge-builders is commendable. They put a desire for unity above personal preference. At the same time, it was hard to argue with anyone who said the gulf between the two resolutions was too wide for any bridge to cross.

But the gap between resolutions was no wider than the one between the most staunch progressives and conservatives. They walked the same convention halls but inhabited different worlds. To one, the church is an oppressor that silences dissent and denies dignity to the marginalized. To the other, it is a permissive institution that tolerates sin and doesn’t enforce its rules.

When people look at the same church and see completely different things, is there any hope of keeping them together?

On the delegate floor, some dared to hope. Perhaps that was because many had positive experiences, if not always easy ones, in their table groups. Dorothy Nickel Friesen, who served as a “conversation coach,” told MWR she heard overwhelming appreciation for the groups of eight or nine often very diverse people.

Richard Gehring, moderator of Western District Conference, described his table’s experience in the conference’s email newsletter, Sprouts: “We spoke from the heart, sharing our convictions regarding the truth of Christ to the best of our understanding. We listened to one another. We wept with one another. We prayed with and for one another. We laughed with one another. And we wept with one another some more.

“The table thus became a sacred space where Jesus was palpably present. I am convinced that all of us are deeply committed to faithfully following Christ. . . .

“I doubt that any of us ultimately changed our minds regarding the significant topics we discussed and voted on. We may not have been right in all our decisions. But I hope that we all came to a better understanding of why our brothers and sisters hold different viewpoints. I know that was true for me. And I hope that we can continue to be the church together even in the midst of our differences.”

To preserve as much unity as possible in MC USA, members will need to nurture in their congregations and conferences the respect and understanding that grew from table experiences like Gehring’s. They will need to take to heart the resolution to forbear.

Those frustrated by the denomination’s slow pace of change can forbear by recognizing that this is simply what one can expect from a traditionally conservative denomination. But many believe the time will come when the sexuality issues that confound the church today will be largely resolved. Acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians will be commonplace, even in denominations such as MC USA. And then our children will try to repair the damage we have done.

Many in the church continue to hope that those on both sides of this conflict will accept less than their idea of perfection and embrace different kinds of faithful congregations. Recognition of everyone’s desire to be faithful is one thing both sexuality resolutions have in common.


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  • Harold Miller

    Your summary description of how those on both ends of our church experienced the delegate action on same-sex was excellent, Paul. Succinct and perceptive. As you looked ahead you missed something, though.

    I, like Gehring, experienced a miracle of unity in my table group at Kansas City. We were highly diverse with a young man fresh from high school and a woman well past retirement age, and with the whole theological spectrum. We listened well, thoroughly enjoyed each other, and grew to understand and respect our various viewpoints.

    From that experience, you and Gehring “hope that we can continue to be the church together even in the midst of our differences.” To me that is a leap. If only understanding and respect for each other could result in agreement with each other on elements that are essential in our faith and life!

    For us conservatives to feel like we belong in a church where there is full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians, we need more than good working relationships with progressives. We need Bible study that helps us see that the Spirit and Word, as well as society, is moving us toward same-sex marriage.

    • John M. Miller

      Harold, I agree that the church needs to frame the issue in a clear biblical perspective. But we’ve been having this discussion for some twenty years now. I find it a bit disingenuous that you take the stance this Bible study is lacking. You were present years ago in some of the MennoLink discussions. Recently, I offered on your webpage that if you would make the discussion public rather than private, I would be willing to engage your list of questions about the scriptural issues. I’m sure you’ve been in conversation with others more qualified than I to discuss the biblical questions. I suspect there is no amount of biblical interpretation that will change your mind. Each of us has an amount of personal investment in our public stance that makes it difficult to consider alternative interpretations, and I suspect your are no different from the rest of us in that regard. I find Ken Wilson addresses the biblical questions honestly, and he reaches conclusions opposite of your own. Is it not true that it’s not that there is Bible study that answers your questions but that you find it impossible to accept them for other reasons?

      • John Gingrich

        Twenty years of discussion is pretty short in comparison to the 250 years it took to go from the pacifism of the first century to Constantine and Augustine. In the context of the Crusades the Anabaptists finally insisted on the plain reading of and obedience to the scriptures to confront this twisting of scripture more than 1000 years later. It is too easy to want to rush a new revelation and interpretation to suit our wishes but almost every western cult uses scriptures to argue their case. Slavery and the KKK are other examples of people using a unsound interpretation of scripture. Much better to do the study carefully and honestly than to be in too much of a hurry to get ‘er done.

        • Joshua Rodd

          A plain reading of scripture results in all kinds of other things being apparent – prayer coverings, no divorce and remarriage, and footwashing come to mind.

          It doesn’t make sense to me to have a “conservative” position that is actually quite progressive / acculturated on the above things, yet wants to retain a plain reading of scripture on one narrow issue. If acculturation is the goal, the view on sexuality will be acculturated too.

          And I think that’s a dangerous path to go down. Scrubbing your brother’s feet, choosing to live a single life after your spouse leaves you, and agreeing that women should wear pieces of fabric on their hand can feel onerous, ridiculous, and sure makes you feel separate from the world.

          But our world is full of war, fighting, and lack of love for each other. Those things are important to me. I think we need to follow the commands of scripture to keep what’s really important: being an example of Jesus and peace to the world and inviting others to come and follow him. If we keep trying to be like the world, we’re going to fail at that.

          • John Gingrich

            I’m not sure I understand where you are disagreeing with me. I’m saying let’s not be hasty and worried about whether we are politically correct when we do our biblical interpretation which sounds like your last sentence. There have been so many instances of popular practices down through the years that have been supported by bad biblical interpretation that we need to weigh very carefully the changing of two millennium of biblical teaching in this what you call “one narrow issue”. Doing what you identify as really important does not preclude the discussion of biblical ethics. This is where we look to the “Keepers of the Sacred Fire” in our faith tradition to help us stay connected to the eternal.

          • Joshua Rodd

            John, chances are we don’t disagree much at all!

      • Harold Miller

        John, thanks for raising this again here. Life happened and I never did respond to your comment the other week. I’m grappling with the best way to do this dialogue. At Kansas City I talked with Paul Schrag about this; we agreed to talk more after World Conference. Is there some way we could put our energies into the creation of a wiki-type document? A huge disadvantage of blog comments or emails is that the train of thought gets long and convoluted and any insights and helpful ways of stating things tend to get lost in the tangle somewhere rather than rise to the surface. If I’m putting my life blood into this (it takes me a long time to compose a comment), I would rather end up with a document than with a convoluted comment stream.

        In the meantime, I’ll just again say that, before God, I have thoroughly, and even hungrily, read the writings for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church, wanting to see the biblical arguments, genuinely open to beginning to sympathize with those holding our culture’s rather than our church’s stance. It hasn’t happened yet, as I have described in my web article you referred to, Listening and responding to voices of inclusion. It feels to me (and this can be me being “a bit disingenuous,” as you say, or it can be me in vulnerability opening a window into my heart and mind) that Ted Grimsrud, Vern Rempel, Megan Ramer, Karl Shelly, Keith Graber Miller… (and Matthew Vines, Ken Wilson, David Gushee…) are too quickly satisfied when they can present some exegetical arguments that support their stance on same-sex partnerships. I have yet to see them, in love for Scripture, eagerly and rigorously examining the strongest arguments that support our church’s historic stance.

        • John M. Miller

          I had to wonder if the rush of Kansas City and now Harrisburg might have called for your attention. After writing what I wrote, I recalled that in earlier times when we faced the issue of divorce/remarriage and similar issues, study conferences were instituted and over a period a a few years with carefully prepared papers and times of structured conversation the denomination would come up with a statement that affirmed a stance for the church. Sometimes in my more perverse moments I would like to be able to assemble the major voices on all sides of this issue and lock them up in a Jesuit retreat center and not let them out until the had reached a statement they could all agree on.

          While I think your conclusion that some “are too quickly satisfied when they can present some exegetical
          arguments that support their stance on same-sex partnerships. I have yet
          to see them, in love for Scripture, eagerly and rigorously examining
          the strongest arguments that support our church’s historic stance” represents an ingrained bias on your part. I read Wilson as struggling deeply with the issue and very self-aware with regard to his pastoral dynamics that caused him to search the Scriptures to see if he could find a basis for inclusion, and I’m aware of the dynamics of empathy that predispose me to see if there is an interpretation of the texts that does not condemn those who are given a different sexual orientation as they are born by the providence of God. It’s the same dynamic I experienced when people were coming to Christ with tangled marital histories as I evangelized in NW Mexico. There’s a fellow-missionary in that area who required that people divorce from current families and reunite with former spouses in order to be baptized. As I saw it, he broke up families to accept people at the table of Christ. I don’t think I and my fellow-missionaries fudged the Scriptures—we earnestly studied the Greek and did the best exegetical work of which we were capable. But we did approach the Scripture with questions that grew from our pastoral ministry.

          So, I continue to wish for a biblical study in a context of trust and honesty.

    • Daniel Hoopert

      Isn’t a conclusion already accepted before the Bible study which should lead to a right understanding of God’s ways? I do not think that Bible study will ever enable us to see that the Spirit and the Word are moving us to accepting same-sex marriage. The Scriptures opposed same sex relations in both the Old and the New Testaments. That has not changed. Trajectory hermeneutics will not work, either.

  • Joel Miller

    Bible study is important and has been ongoing and there could be more of it. But without some accompanying commitments, this can pretty easily fall into reinforcing our previously held convictions. To cite the Bible: Did the apostles and elders in Acts 15 sit down at the Jerusalem Council and have a Bible study? Maybe, probably. But the catalyst for a new understanding of the family of God seems topretty clearly be coming through “telling stories” (CEB, v. 3) of the Spirit’s lively presence among the Gentiles. Testimony and experience enlightened the meaning of scripture and tradition. Let’s have lots of Bible study, but let’s also accompany it with telling stories about the remarkable ways LGBTQ folks are embodying the good news of Jesus. That seems to be the biblical way to go about the conversation.

    • Harold Miller

      Joel, I like your call for stories and Bible study. Stories are needed. The Spirit falling on Cornelius set the church reexamining Scripture (James cited from the OT thread of God bringing in the Gentiles), helping them receive Gentiles as Gentiles. Stories of God using women in leadership moved us to reexamine Scriptures on Deborah and Junia and Gal 3 and Acts 2. But the stories are never sufficient to guide us. As you say, Bible study is needed too. If we only looked at the story of Cornelius we would conclude that being a centurion must be a holy vocation.

    • John Gingrich

      I feel guilty commenting too often but Joel, I can’t help myself, you have an excellent point. Listening to the Spirit stories is important but the heart of the question we are debating is the one caveat that is in the Acts 15 account. What does it mean to abstain from sexual immorality or as the KJV says fornication? I don’t hear any of my traditionalist friends rejecting the LGBTQ orientation, or their presence in our congregations. I hear them having a problem with the church accepting a new definition of sexual purity. Paul brought the case for inclusion of the Gentiles to the Jerusalem Council but in his own description of the contrast between the walk in the Spirit and the desires of the flesh in Galatians 5 he has some pretty strict prohibitions. I think the dividing issue in the church today is the definition of sexual immorality?

    • Jeremy Martin

      Is everything ok if someone can live and tell stories about Jesus that are acceptable to people around them? Is that the new definition of morality? Even if everyone were to agree that [insert something here] was moral or immoral, would it make any difference, since God is in control and knows what is best? We know what Jesus taught about marriage in Mark 10:2-10. Are we going to accept Jesus teaching on marriage, or make up our own definition?

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